Keep the forests standing for people and the planet

Deforestation and forest degradation are major contributors to global warming and account for greenh

Every year, about 13 million hectares of forests are destroyed around the world, writes Thiaw [EPA]

The Ayoreo people of western Paraguay, who include the last uncontacted indigenous peoples south of the Amazon, have an enemy that they call “the beast with metal skin and attacker of the world”. Their spears cannot penetrate its flanks.

The beast in question is not a mythological creature. It is simply the bulldozer, which tears through the Gran Chaco; the forest where the Ayoreo live. Between 1990 and 2011, Paraguay lost more than three million hectares of the Chaco forest, displacing the Ayoreo and threatening its inhabitants large and small, including giant armadillos, jaguars, howler monkeys, and tapirs.

Every year, about 13 million hectares of forests are destroyed around the world, the equivalent of losing 25 football fields of trees every minute. This is due to rapidly expanding croplands, plantations and pastures, infrastructure development, destructive logging, and fires.

In the case of Paraguay, one quarter of the forests have been cleared since 1990, mostly to grow soybeans and to provide pasture for the country’s livestock industry – two of its biggest economic engines. On the other side of the world, in Nigeria, more than one half of the country’s forest cover has been lost since 1990, making way for not just the expansion of agriculture, but also for mining, oil and gas projects. Forests have also been degraded through the unsustainable production and consumption of fuel-wood; the primary source of fuel for about two-thirds of the country.

Deforestation in Argentina disrupts lives

Impacts of destruction 

This destruction has long-term environmental and social impacts. It often separates indigenous people and communities from the forests that provide them with their livelihoods and deprives endangered species of their habitats on the ground, and even in the air. For example, forests provide habitat for more than three quarters of all globally threatened bird species.

Forests also provide food, medicine and other vital products to people, as well as important services, such as filtering fresh water as it collects and flows downstream, so that urban populations have clean water to drink. In fact, 33 of the world’s largest cities obtain their fresh water directly from protected expanses of forest. Globally, forests contribute to the livelihoods of 1.6 billion people worldwide.

Deforestation and forest degradation are also major – but often lesser known – contributors to global warming and account for a substantial proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions.

What Paraguay and Nigeria have in common is that both countries are looking at an international initiative, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), to help keep their remaining trees standing. REDD+ is an international effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from activities on forested lands and invest in more sustainable forest management practices.

Sustainability is the key to REDD+; countries are exploring how forests can be protected, and even restored, while still providing livelihoods and sustenance for the people who depend on them. REDD+ helps to increase the value of trees in the eyes of national and local governments and other stakeholders in the private and public sectors. In mapping out where REDD+ actions could contribute to reducing poverty and inequality, and support the cultures of forest-dependent and indigenous peoples, REDD+ is empowering environment ministries, communities and others in land-use planning.

Global effort

Cross River State in Nigeria, which contains more than half of the remaining tropical forest in the country, is implementing REDD+ as a way to protect its standing forests while also promoting their contribution to sustainable development. For many communities who live in or near the forests in Nigeria, products like bush mango, bush-meat and fuel-wood play an important part in local livelihoods and economies.

Last year’s negotiations provided guidelines on financing, transparency, and monitoring. This year, the stakes are higher and yet the world keeps losing more and more tree cover.

Ecotourism is another growing segment of the local economy in Nigeria. Travellers visit Cross River State not only to experience its rugged mountains and to look at the “charismatic megafauna” – the forest elephants, gorillas and chimpanzees – but also to seek out the more than 900 varieties of butterflies that live in the region’s tropical high forest. Ecotourism thrives in the deep forests of the world. Globally, it is worth as much as $77bn annually.

The implementation of REDD+ and the launch of markets for the carbon credits that underpin the new value of the world’s forests – and the green economies that prosper in these forests – will be a primary topic at the ongoing international climate change negotiations at COP 20, taking place in Lima, Peru, from December 1-12.

Last year’s negotiations provided guidelines on financing, transparency, and monitoring. This year, the stakes are higher and yet the world keeps losing more and more tree cover. The 56 countries involved in the UN-REDD Programme, including Paraguay and Nigeria, are looking at REDD+ to stop this trend, help people who depend on forests, and mitigate the climate change impacts that threaten us all. At Lima and beyond, we need to continue down the path of REDD+ implementation so that we, as a global society, can finally safeguard our forests.

Ibrahim Thiaw is UN assistant secretary-general and UNEP’s deputy executive director.